The food of France is often characterised by its region and the terroir in which it grows. Gewürzhaus’ Spice Merchant and French native, Domitille takes you on a roadtrip through the regions of France she loves most for their food. From Marseille to Guérande, read about the diverse history and unique dishes that make French cuisine so simply delicious.
Centuries of meshing cultures and cuisines
I’m from Brittany in north-west France, but my love of French food spans the whole country. There is so much that makes it distinctive. To talk about the elements that have made French cooking what it is, you really need to begin with geography and history. Port cities like Marseille, in Provence, for example, have long been “melting pots”, welcoming traders for centuries and enthusiastically embracing the foods of other cultures – Roman, Greek, North African, Spanish.
This was how our wonderful wine culture was born, when Ancient Greek traders brought their wines to France. Not to mention our love of ingredients like tomatoes, olives, oils and seafood, and the herbs and spices grown in each part of the Mediterranean. It’s largely due to those traders from Ancient Greece and Rome that France is now the fifth largest consumer of olive oil in the world. And in today’s Marseille, you’ll see the same food shops you’ll see in places like Morocco and Algeria. These cuisines have informed French food for many years.
Rustic food that reflects its locale
French provincial cooking is all about pleasure, simplicity, the happiness good food brings to our lives every day, and what’s available in the moment. It’s not at all about fussy presentation and techniques, but generous, rustic meals prepared using the freshest seasonal produce, shared around the family table straight from stovetop or oven. Like a fluffy omelette filled with freshly foraged mushrooms and herbs, a piping hot root vegetable gratin, a hearty beef or seafood stew, a bright and crisp salad, bread baked with locally grown and milled flour and spread with butter that carries the flavours of the vegetation on which the dairy cows grazed, and creamy stone-fruit flaugnardes. It’s food steeped in history and tradition, and it celebrates all that the sea and earth provide.
Location is vitally important to quality and flavour, as I think Australians now know well – you can see an increasing recognition here of the value of regional produce. Regions and even individual towns have a unique geography that informs what people grow and eat. The soil, water and climate all have their say in what flourishes and what finds its way to our tables. You could even say that in France we fall a little in love with our ingredients; we revere their colours, flavours and textures, and the magical affinities between them. We have annual festivals throughout the country to honour our produce – there are festivals for almost every imaginable ingredient and food – we have them for wines, truffles, cheeses, foie gras, particular fruits and vegetables, pastries; all you could imagine.
Regional specialities are one of the great delights of provincial food. In my native Brittany, we’re famed for our butter (some of which is infused with seaweed), the delicately flavoured salt from the seaside marshes of Guérande, and the traditional ciders made with local apple varieties. One of the simplest yet most satisfying dishes I love from my home region is the Breton buckwheat galette – a savoury crêpe made with buckwheat flour. It might be filled with ham, Gruyère cheese and an egg, or seafood… sometimes ratatouille or mushrooms. The nutty, earthy flavour of the buckwheat is heartier than that of wheat flour and matches beautifully with savoury ingredients. A cup of crisp, dry farm cider is a must on the side.
Thinking back to Marseille, dishes like bouillabaisse stand out – the rich, golden stew prepared with a variety of freshly caught fish and shellfish, fish stock, tomatoes, garlic, saffron and thyme, and traditionally served with toasted baguette slices and spicy, tangy red-pepper aioli. It’s a dish handed down through generations, and while each family will have its favourite recipe, the primary ingredients remain the same. This is a great example, too, of the vibrant colours and harmony of flavours that characterise French provincial cooking.
Calissons are another favourite of mine from the south of France. They’re a speciality of Aix-en-Provence, made with a paste of candied Provençal fruit (often melons and oranges) blended with finely ground almonds, set on a thin wafer and finished with royal icing. The taste is sensational – the intensity of the fruits balanced by the subtlety of the almonds. It’s thought this type of confectionary originated in medieval Italy, but Provence has claimed the calisson as a regional treat since the fifteenth century.
Then there are more recent traditions, such as the delectable Tarte Tropézienne, made from sliced brioche filled with lemon and vanilla cream and coated with sugar crystals. It was created by a St Tropez baker, Alexander Micka, in 1955. When Brigitte Bardot arrived in town to film And God Created Woman, she adored it, and it’s been a mainstay in St Tropez ever since. Such a simple, straightforward dessert, yet the ingredients lend it a character all its own. The original filling was probably made using juice from the famed Menton lemons grown in the Côte d'Azur, which are officially recognised (with the designation known as PGI) for their quality.
Your French provincial table
It’s easier than you might think to put together a French provincial feast for your loved ones. I’d suggest starting with Chicken Provençale as a main, with Fondant Potatoes and a crisp green salad on the side; for a light lunch, try this Summer Stone-Fruit Salad, which combines luscious summer fruits with prosciutto, goat cheese, garlic croutons and tarragon. For dessert, you really can’t go past a Spiced Apricot Flaugnarde – light, fruity, creamy, and subtly spiced with Quatre Épices. These dishes are very easy to prepare, and sure to be appreciated with gusto. Once you’ve shared them, I’m sure you’ll enjoy adding more recipes to your repertoire and gathering friends and family to experience more provincial dishes that are an expression of a deep regard for excellent produce – and for life itself.